In our attempt to uncover what “local music” is, the subject of cover bands is undoubtedly a divisive issue. On the one hand, cover bands are local performers. They’re providing music for people in the area, satisfying a demand for raw moments of on-stage impulses and audience engagement. On the other hand, they’re exploring music rooted in a different time and place, using words and sounds from distant stories and experiences.
DC may have some music shortages, but cover bands are not one of them. White Ford Bronco, a 90’s cover band, has approximately 1900 Facebook “Likes” and over 470 Twitter followers. Yet, their musical inspiration doesn’t stem from a deep-seeded desire to make it in the music industry (on their info page, the “Record Label” field says Who’s going to sign a cover band?), it comes from “the critical parental advice of Danny Tanner and the food at the Max. And the Peach Pit. The cuckolding of 90210 and Melrose Place. The red one pieces and the authority of David Hasselhoff that looks over the Los Angeles County Beaches.” For the DC community, White Ford Bronco serves as a medium to bring life back into polyester pantsuits and the Olsen twins. And, while the band members are all DC dwellers, with an allegiance to the DC music scene, the majority of their music (if any) is not. When almost every song performed can be searched and played within seconds, it’s evident that the cover band appeal comes from the performance, the individual musicians and the experience they cultivate locally.
In fact, it could be argued that cover bands exclusively serve the local community by reviving an era or genre in the most authentic form of localism possible – through their present audience. Human Country Jukebox, a country cover band, credits their appeal to the personal touch they incorporate into classic hits. Jack Gregori, Human Country Jukebox singer and guitarist, cautions against cover bands being “too authentic” and sounding too much like the original recording. “The crowd zoned out because you’ve heard that all before. I try to avoid that particularly as a cover band. You have to be feeling it, particularly playing a part – interacting with the crowd. Especially the back and forth connection you feel with people listening to you. With some cover bands, this doesn’t exist. Struck me as something to be avoided – you can be ‘too good’ – too precise.”
As a cover band, you’re rarely aspiring for a musical breakthrough – you’re aspiring to engage and satisfy your audience through pre-existing content. Sean Pool, a local fan and music connoisseur, makes an interesting analogy: “Cover bands are definitely local. It’s like a micro-roaster – the coffee beans come from all over the world, but they roast them and serve them in-house.” The fact that they’re not writing music in DC or about DC doesn’t discount them as local musicians or performers. The value added to the music community illuminates that where a piece of music is written is not the only determinant of locality.
That said, the significance of original work cannot be understated. At Listen Local First, we exclusively feature musicians who produce and record their own work. Local music, music that is written and produced in a specific place, becomes an avenue to highlight local experiences, places, and circumstances within the universality of human understanding. Songwriting and musical production tap into deeper principles – those periods of understanding and empathy, jealously and despair, that “speak to the soul”. DC activist Zach Zill discredits cover bands as local music, claiming that “local music is about the creation of culture that people in one small geographic area can share in common and relate to. Most cover bands don’t fit that criteria because they’re rehashing cultural reference points much larger than that.”
While cover bands are (arguably) created through their performance, songwriting and musical production compound many dimensions, exploring an inward sense of physical places and communities. John Evantin, a local singer/songwriter, differentiates local bands from local music: “Physically speaking are cover bands local bands? Yes. Is the music they’re playing local music? I don’t know.”
So, what do you think? Do cover bands localize the voices of great musicians or is original songwriting a necessary ingredient in local music?